WALLINGFORD — Comments made by a Republican town councilman last week during a discussion of the school district’s special education budget has set off a firestorm of criticism.
Councilman John LeTourneau made his comments during an eight-minute question-and-answer exchange with Superintendent of Schools Salvatore Menzo that was part of larger discussion of the proposed budget for Wallingford schools. LeTourneau’s remarks were captured as part of recording of the budget hearing by Wallingford Government Television, a copy of which was made available to the New Haven Register.
“Is there anyway to get the parents to contribute towards some of their child’s (costs) or is this all on the town?” LeTourneau said at the start of his questioning of Menzo.
The superintendent told LeTourneau that trying to charge the parents of special needs children for some of the costs associated with their youngsters’ education would be a violation of federal statutes as addressed in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Originally known as the Education of Handicapped Children Act when it was passed by federal lawmakers in 1975, it is designed to support equal access to education for children with disabilities.
“A student attending public schools, it’s the responsibility of the school district to offer what they call the LRE or least restrictive environment,” Menzo told LeTourenau. “The least restricitve environment sometimes requires us to add additional staff that might be above and beyond what we already have in our system or it might require us to look for a different facility to utilize. There is not a burden on the part of the parent; that would be involation of federal law.”
LeToureau responded by saying he finds it “disturbing that as time goes on, it seems like we’re getting more and more kids with emotional needs, so to speak.
“Where does it stop?” LeTourneau said. “At some point, it’s got to stop, where it becomes the responsibility of the taxpayer. I don’t want to see any children that are truly in need left out … but I wonder about abuse of the system.”
Photo: Luther Turmelle / Hearst Connecticut Media
(A video of the exchange between Menzo and LeTourneau can be viewed at nhregister.com.)
LeTourneau said Tuesday that his comments were misinterpreted. The councilman, who has served on the governing body for 12 years, said he was referring to students whose behavior in school is disruptive to the learning environment: He said he believes that parents of disruptive students lobby school officials for their children to receive special treatment or receive what he termed “a special needs designation.”
“I would never cut the special education budget,” LeTourneau said. “At the same time, as an elected official, it is my responsibility to ask questions and do what I can to save money.”
One of LeTourneau’s most vocal critics has been Jonathan Chappell, who has a 7-year-old son who is non-verbal on the autism spectrum. A Facebook post Chappell made after seeing video of the budget hearing attracted 65 responses regarding the councilman’s comments, some using foul language.
“It sounds like he’d be OK with violating the law,” Chappell said Wednesday. “I generally have nothing against him personally, but persistent ignorance is inexcusable to me and anyone with a disabled student or friend. My son is more important to me than what one councilman thinks of me.”
Chapell said his son benefits from a variety of services that the school district pays for, including speech and physical therapy. And because his son is non-verbal, Chappell said the district provides the child with an tablet computer that allows him to communicate with educators and staff during the school day.
“There is a lot that happens with him during a six-hour (school) day,” Chappell said.
This is not the first time LeTourneau has brought up special education costs or made controversial comments, according to Chappell. During one municipal budget hearing in 2018, LeTourneau used the term “retarded” when referring to special needs students, which he acknowledged in his Tuesday interview with the New Haven Register.
“I grew up with the word and somewhere along the line, it has become socially incorrect,” LeTourneau said. “We have become a society of labels.”
The councilman said he does not spend any time on social media. But LeTourneau said he has received several letters criticizing his remarks and others have made him aware of the remarks made against him on Facebook and other platforms.
“But nobody has come up to me face-to-face and addressed the issue,” he said.
LeTourneau said he is expecting additional criticism when the council meets on Tuesday to vote on Mayor William Dickinson Jr.’s proposed $169.17 million municipal budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year. The proposed budget represents a $4.39 million or 2.6 percent increase over the town’s current spending plan.
“In a political position, you say a lot of things in public, some which come out good and some not so good,” LeTourneau said. “When you step into the political arena, you have to have skin that is like bacon.”